Talking Baseball

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:40

    Nowadays, "Please Extinguish All Smoking Materials" with some other bit of authoritarian periphrasis is probably printed more commonly than the little cliche that used to run along the southern edge of 99 percent of matchbooks. But my friend's question got me to thinking ever after about what is the most beautiful phrase in the English language. A lot of people have weighed in on this question, without notable success. Was it Gertrude Stein or Henry James who came in on the side of "Summer Afternoon"? Was it Henry James or Edgar Allan Poe who plumped for "Cellar Door"? Or was it Pound, or Mencken? Almost all the ones I've come up with come from baseball.

    First would be: "Two Out When Winning Run Scored." That, along with its One-Out and None-Out variances, is what is printed near the bottom of the box score when the home team wins in the bottom of the ninth inning. It evokes so much about baseball: the difference between playing at home and playing on the road, the unique precariousness of leads, the spectacular way games tend to end (only basketball comes close to having this appeal), and the unboundedness of games by chronological time. This expression marks probably half the classic games in baseball history.

    On the subject of time, when a game ends with a homer in Fenway Park, overexcited announcers often have recourse to the expression "Into the Night." As in: "The windup, the pitch...line drive, deep to left. This one's going....into the night." To be sure, you need to have an old-style ballpark?the kind you can hit a ball out of?for the expression to make any sense. But it does have the merit of proposing that baseball is a kind of mystical experience. As if up to now we had been existing outside of time and space. Now that someone has homered, it's night again.

    "A little looper." There's never anything little about a "little looper." This is what announcers call a badly hit ball that looks too deep for the shortstop or second baseman and too shallow for the outfielder to catch. But for some reason, announcers never use the expression in noncrucial situations. A badly hit single in the top of the first is a bloop. The same ball, hit with two on and two out in the eighth inning of a scoreless game is a "little looper." "Little" conveys the ever-present irony?you could even call it the beautiful unfairness?of baseball. A little looper, after all, is a hit that would have been an easy out if the batter had made slightly better contact. The undertone of the expression is "uh-oh," because little loopers only have two possible outcomes: either a spectacular diving catch you'll see on the highlight films or a heartbreaking hemorrhage of runs.

    "Shakes off the sign." This is what a pitcher does when he wants to throw a pitch different from the one the catcher has signaled to him. It's hard to think of another sport where sympathetic people make helpful suggestions to you that you can "shake off," but life is kind of that way, as in: "My friends have urged me to spend less time at the racetrack. But I shook off the sign."

    Sox and the City A preference for certain types of expression may be due to my being a Red Sox fan.     I say this, as do all Red Sox fans, with a certain pride. Sox fans are much more intelligent than most fans, just because they follow the game more closely. Almost all other baseball fans in the country are oriented toward commanding, even lopsided, victories. That's certainly the case with Baltimore Orioles fans among whom I spend most of my baseball-discussing time. ("How was the game?" "Great. The Os scored 17 runs in the first inning and won 25 to 2.") Maybe it's because the Sox have generally had to do without simple, lopsided victories that their fans tend to like good games?close ones?better than routs. They prefer 2-1 cliffhangers to 18-4 slugfests, and they cheer opposing pitchers who get pulled in close games. That's why the designated hitter rule has never been particularly popular in Boston, which is at the opposite pole from Charlie Finley's Oakland or Bill Veeck's Chicago. Practically no one in Boston thinks baseball is "boring" or that the game will be made more "exciting" if it's turned into a home run derby. And this remains true, even though the Red Sox of the past have had some of the game's great designated hitters?Orlando Cepeda, Jim Rice, Don Baylor?and have at times looked like a team that had a whole lineup of them. I'm thinking not just of such present-day fielding liabilities as Jose Offerman, but also of the designated-hitter-type players the Sox had even before the DH rule was imposed in 1973. Dick Stuart, for instance, a fielder so spectacularly confused that he was given a nickname (Stone Fingers) that the boxer Roberto Duran would adapt decades later: Hands of Stone.

    Baseball is more fun for Red Sox fans, which must be why it seems, at times, that everyone wants to be one. The Boston Globe writer, Dan Shaughnessy, refers to Sox fans in the aggregate as "Red Sox Nation," and you see what he means. The Red Sox are never destined to be a national team, the kind of team that fair-weather fans in the rustic precincts of America will rally behind just so they can say they've backed a winner. The Yankees were such a team for a long time. The British soccer team, Manchester United, has a long record of drawing fans from all over its country and others. During the 80s, there was a sort of "Cold War" going on in basketball, where every fan in the country, whatever his local allegiance, had to decide whether he would back the Boston Celtics or the Los Angeles Lakers. But such teams are rare. The most spectacular attempt of any team to promote itself as one?the Dallas Cowboys in the 1970s and 80s?flopped.

    The Red Sox aren't a national team, but they do have a highly influential group of elite fans from all over the place. You can divide the team's fans into locals and nationals. The classification is a little trickier than it looks. The Red Sox are the team of New England, of course. But most of Connecticut is Yankees territory now, and the Sox have traditionally drawn a lot of support from three areas outside of New England: upstate New York, eastern Long Island and the Maritime Provinces. For some reason, Yankees (in the sociological sense) don't really go for the Yankees (in the baseball sense).

    Among celebs, Stephen King is a local. His enthusiasm probably owes more to his being from Maine than to his being able to get front-row seats and pontificate on national tv about how great his team is. Doris Kearns Goodwin, John Updike and the late Bartlett Giamatti always struck me as nationals, as converts. Do not think I mean this in any derogatory sense. If rooting for the Sox is like a religion to many fans, it shouldn't surprise us that it's the converts who enunciate the doctrines most stridently and practice the rituals most observantly. Amen.